How to have great accessible dates in a wheelchair

Wheelchair-using couples tell Faith Martin how they overcame dating challenges to find love together, plus tips for non-wheelchair users

Dating is a challenge for anyone. There’s finding the perfect activity, working out how you’ll get there and making sure you definitely don’t have food in your teeth. But for wheelchair users, dating brings up a whole host of new challenges.

In this guide, you’ll hear from several wheelchair-using couples on the issues they’ve faced and their tips for a successful first date. Whether you’re going out for dinner or wanting to find an activity you can share, there are many ways to make dating more inclusive.

Is the venue for your date accessible?

The first thing to remember is that leaving the house takes planning, and dating is the same but on steroids. The definition of wheelchair accessible is different for everyone, but for many businesses, it simply means they’re on the ground floor. I’ve lost count of how often I’ve been told somewhere is wheelchair accessible, but they have a ‘small step’. If you can get through the door, how much space is there? Are the toilets accessible for you or do you need a changing places loo nearby? The best thing to do is ask for recommendations, do a Google search on accessibility or ring the restaurant to see if they can accommodate your needs before booking a table.

A head-shot of a couple. On the left Poppy is looking at the camera smiling with sunglasses on her head. On the right, Grant is wearing glasses and a baseball cap.

Once he was gone, the hotel receptionist asked if I was from a 'special programme'

Poppy Field

Planning together can be romantic

While accessibility is undoubtedly a challenge, it’s important to remember that the fundamental value of dating is having fun with someone you’ve found a connection with. Pre-planning dates together can help with your nerves. Don’t be afraid to ask for extra support or to communicate your needs to your date; if they’re the right person, they’ll understand and want you to feel comfortable.

Activities like museums, cinemas and picnics can all be made accessible with a few tweaks. Most chain cinemas and bigger museums will have wheelchair access, while something like a picnic requires very little adaptation and can be anywhere that suits your needs. Some national parks even offer wheelchair-accessible trails, so a romantic stroll is an option before or after your picnic.

Poppy and Grant

Poppy Field and Grant Stoner are in a long-distance relationship from the UK and the US, respectively. They met via X (formerly Twitter), and Poppy flew over to meet Grant when they started dating last year.

Talking about when they first met, Poppy goes on to say, “After we met in person for the first time, I went back to my hotel, and Grant said good night to me in the lobby. Once he was gone, the hotel receptionist asked if I was from a 'special programme', and how nice it was 'for people to do these things'."

Awkward moments are bound to arise on any date, let alone when you have the extra challenge of being a wheelchair user. However, it’s important to remember that this isn’t a reflection on you but on society itself.

Niamh and Karl

Niamh Dunphy and Karl Doyle met through friends at university and now run a successful TikTok channel, documenting their adventures as a couple and reviewing live music. They are both wheelchair users. Talking about their first date, they detail how transportation was a huge issue for them: “We struggle to find places that can fit both of our electric wheelchairs. Transport is always a big issue, as you can only get one wheelchair on a bus at a time!” Karl added: “Our worst date was our first one. My bus was late, and Niamh was waiting in the hot summer sun, burning like a lobster. She still has a sunburn mark from where her watch was, although we laugh about it now.”

I asked Niamh and Karl what they thought made a great accessible date. “For us specifically, it’s enough space for our wheelchairs, step-free access and a changing places toilet”. The couple recently went on holiday to London, staying in a hotel with ceiling track hoists available, considering it the most accessible hotel they’d ever stayed in.

Sophie and Charlie

Sophie Dearman is the Volunteer Support Officer for Whizz Kidz. She met her partner Charlie (a non-wheelchair user) in hospital as children, and they reconnected years later and started dating in 2014. They’re now married. However, as she was planning the wedding, Sophie said, “When looking at possible wedding venues, one staff member commented that I would be the first ‘wheelchair bride’ they’d ever had if we booked with them. While it may have been true, it was completely random (we weren’t discussing accessibility at that point) and inappropriate.”

Despite the lack of awareness shown to Sophie, it hasn’t stopped her and Charlie from having some great dates. “We’ve had so many amazing dates and experiences, I’m not sure I can pick the best one! Around ten years ago, we went bowling – it was a great evening, and it still comes up every so often… More recently, we spent two nights in an adapted double shepherd hut in mid-Wales – both the hut and location were truly stunning, and we had a wonderful time relaxing.”

The truth is there’s no rule book for dating, and it’s also not the most important thing in life, so whether you’re spending Valentine’s Day with someone you love or with friends, the most important thing is that you have fun.

Tips for dating a wheelchair user

We know that for non-wheelchair-using folk, dating a wheelchair user might feel daunting. As with dating anyone, you want to be able to support that person’s needs, and that might look a little different for a disabled person, so here are a few tips if you’re looking for how you can support us.

● Ask them about their needs when appropriate. We’d much rather you ask us what’s accessible to us, as opposed to any awkward feeling if we get there and something goes wrong.

● If you know their needs, try to take some of that planning stress away from them. Perhaps book a restaurant that you know is accessible or set up an at-home activity. Taking the stress away means we can actually enjoy the date.

● Our pain levels may change depending on our disability, so the length of the date may vary from the first, but it doesn’t necessarily mean we aren’t interested; make sure you show understanding of this.

● Give reassurance when needed; sometimes, as disabled people, society can make us feel like we’re asking for too much, so remind that person their needs are a priority and not a hindrance.

● Don’t ask inappropriate questions on a first date. If I had a pound for every time someone asked me ‘what’s wrong’ with me, I’d be a millionaire. Only ask questions that feel appropriate; if you wouldn’t say it to someone who wasn’t disabled, consider whether you need to say it to your date!

● Remember that we are human. All you need to do is treat us how you would treat anyone else, with respect. You aren’t a ‘saint’ or a ‘hero’ for dating a wheelchair user. They have just as much to offer in a relationship as you do.

    About Faith Martin

    Faith is a 22-year old arts and culture journalist and disability rights champion. Her work appears in the Daily Mirror, Metro, and Gigwise. A powered wheelchair user who campaigns for equal access to live events, she's spending Valentine's evening watching The Vaccines in Southampton.

    Faith Martin portrait photo, outside. She is wearing a black coat with brass coloured buttons.